Viola Desmond's sister keeping icon's memory alive with special donation
Wanda Robson has been sharing the story of her sister, Viola Desmond, for years and now she is hoping a special donation will keep her sister’s memory alive for future generations.
Robson has donated historic documents related to the iconic Nova Scotia civil rights activist to Cape Breton University, in recognition of International Archives Day. The documents will soon have a new home at the university’s Beaton Institute.
“It was hard giving them up because I’m sort of a collector anyway, and it’s family stuff,” says the Sydney resident. “I’m really proud that it has come to this point.”
Desmond was arrested after she sat in a whites-only section of a segregated movie theatre in New Glasgow, N.S. in 1946. She was forcibly removed and fined and spent the night in jail.
After losing various court proceedings challenging the fine, she closed her beauty salon on Gottingen Street and left Halifax for Montreal and later New York City, where she died in 1967.
In 2010, Desmond was given a posthumous pardon and an apology from the Nova Scotia government.
Robson has been instrumental in keeping her sister’s story alive. She even received an honorary doctorate from Cape Breton University in 2012 for extraordinary service to the community and for raising public awareness of Desmond’s story.
“Wanda Robson’s donation to the Beaton Institute really represents a key connection that Cape Breton and her sister, Viola Desmond, plays in the history of social rights, not only here in Nova Scotia, but across Canada,” says Catherine Arseneau, director of Cultural Resources at CBU.
Donations of photographs, letters, newspaper clippings and other historic documents are part of the collection.
“I know what’s going to happen to it if they have it because it’s there for research, for viewing, for students to get an inspiration for an essay,” says Robson. “It’s there forever and that’s the bottom line.”
One item that stands out is a letter to the mayor of New Glasgow, which played a part in Desmond getting a pardon from the provincial government.
“I was wondering if the council members would consider some sort of plaque or something that would say she was there and she stood up for herself,” says Robson. “That was 2009, I think. After that is when everything sort of came together.”
A picture of Robson and Desmond’s parents will also be part of the donation. Robson says her parents would be especially proud of the strength shown by the two sisters, because the desire to make a difference started at home.
With files from CTV Atlantic's Kyle Moore